Pasadena City College’s commencement speaker fiasco re-ignites

Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who was disinvited as Pasadena City College's commencement speaker, was in England on Sunday, cheering on Olympic diver Tom Daley at the FINA/NVC Diving World Series at the London Aquatics Centre.
(Clive Rose / Getty Images)

Does Pasadena City College need some sort of intervention?

After the school gave itself a black eye over a rescinded commencement speech invitation to Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, it announced that the replacement commencement speaker would be Dr. Eric Walsh, Pasadena’s director of public health.

Three weeks later, the college says that he has pulled out of the gig due to an “unforeseen scheduling conflict.” I’d like to give the school the benefit of the doubt, but because school officials have been less than forthcoming about the Black fiasco, it’s hard to take anything they say at face value.

It’s 10 days to graduation, and PCC, which has theoretically been working on its commencement speaker since fall, still has no headliner. Graduates who have worked hard for their degrees deserve a day unmarred by lame politics and bad judgment.

“Students are kind of embarrassed,” said biology professor Russell DiFiori. “They want to have some pride in their school, and this stuff is in the papers...and it’s kind of mortifying.”

It certainly didn’t have to be this way.

Black, 39, would have been a terrific and inspiring speaker. But PCC President Mark W. Rocha, Deputy Supt. Robert Bell and Pasadena Area Community College Board of Trustees President Anthony Fellow feared that an obscure 2009 incident involving a purloined sex tape featuring Black with a former boyfriend would give the college a “bad name,” as Fellow told the campus newspaper.


Walsh, the replacement speaker, seems like an accomplished person. His online bio says he has championed maternal and child health issues, violence prevention and is committed to the “highest level of care for individuals infected with HIV.”

He is also a devout Seventh-day Adventist and a proponent of intelligent design who has said that anyone who teaches the theory of evolution is a “Satanist minister” doing “the devil’s handiwork.”

He has also expressed harsh attitudes toward other religions, particularly Catholicism, and has embraced some downright kooky cultural theories.

Should that have knocked him off the PCC speaker’s dais? Not necessarily.

But it does raise questions about PCC administrators and trustees consider “controversial,” the word Rocha used to describe Black in an email to trustees.

To that end, I think it’s worth taking a look at some of Walsh’s workshops and sermons, which are available online.

In 2010, he told an Adventist youth gathering about how he once met a transgender doctor at a conference on religion and sexuality. He mocked her dream of bringing low-cost sex change operations to minority communities, and, chuckling, said he accidentally called her “shim” (a combination of “she” and “him.”)

A PCC professor who did not want to be identified was upset about Walsh’s 2012 talk with Adventist students, in which he equated the Catholic Church’s veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus, with pagan idolatry. Statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe, he said, are “a lie of Satan.” Likewise, he said, Buddhists who offer food and flowers at altars, he says, are also engaged in pagan idolatry.

Walsh’s statements about popular culture are way out there on the religious fringe. He singles out the Walt Disney Co. and comic books as particularly bad influences.

“Disney is a dark empire,” Walsh says in the 2012 talk. “We take our children there, but we don’t understand it’s all full of witchcraft, superstition. There’s no praying to God. When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are….So when you wish upon a star what are you really wishing to? Demonic forces.”

“The Lion King,” he says, is a vehicle to teach voodoo.

Batman is a “Luciferian” plot. “The Dark Knight is supposed to be the hero,” says Walsh, “but he really represents Satan.”

But Walsh reserves his greatest scorn for the theory of evolution. “I want you to understand,” he says, “that evolution is a religion created by Satan.”

He is outraged that Pope John Paul II embraced the theory of evolution. “How does the pope bless evolution when he’s supposed to believe in the Bible?” he asks.

“The idea that the Earth evolved over millions of years,” Walsh says, is “a farce. It’s not true. It couldn’t have happened that way….There is no evidence that we evolved. Where are all the half-things in the world? Where are the animals that are still evolving?”

Di Fiori, who teaches evolution, chuckled when I read that to him. “There’s all kinds of evidence about evolution,” he said. “We are always finding new bits of the transitional species.”

The “theory” of evolution, Di Fiori said, is like the “theory” of gravity. “You don’t have to believe in it.”

Anyway, I guess the question of whether Walsh is controversial is now moot.

On Wednesday evening, according to its agenda, the Pasadena Area Community College District Board of Trustees is to take up the commencement speaker issue once again.

I’m no spawn of Satan, but I plan to wish upon a star, hoping that PCC gets it right this time.


Twitter: @robinabcarian